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What is the nature of “community” in contemporary America? That is one of the questions we’ve been trying to explore in our reports from cities around the country for our American Futures series. Jim Fallows, in particular, has highlighted our larger themes and the emerging patterns that have surprised us. Here’s how he summarized several of those patterns back in October:

  • How much more functional American governance can seem at the city, regional, and even state level, compared with zero-sum standoff at the federal level (as described here and here elsewhere).
  • How evident the start-up, entrepreneurial, and improvisational outlook is in a wide variety of settings, where you can see its results in the manufacturing, software/services, “social entrepreneurship,” and other fields. (E.g. here and here and here.) This is in contrast to stories we’ve all heard about a paralyzed-seeming America except for the thin layer of financial-engineering specialists or techsters hoping for an IPO.
  • How thick the community fabric of America can seem, and how hard people have tried to maintain and enrich it, at a time when we often think about the country as an assemblage of alienated, mutually suspicious strangers. (E.g. here and here.)

​I want to elaborate here on the last of these by telling you about a week-long civic event—the Conference on World Affairs—that takes place annually in Boulder, Colorado. Elements of it are, I think, quite amazing.

Some people might infer from its name that the Conference on World Affairs focuses largely on international relations or worldwide problems. It doesn’t, even though its schedule always includes a fair number of such panels—this year’s list includes, for example, sessions on Ebola, Boko Haram, and Pope Francis. (Which of those things is not like the others?) “World Affairs” is a more accurate name if you take that to connote everything under the sun. In fact, Roger Ebert—the late, great film critic and longtime regular and enthusiastic participant at CWA—dubbed it “the Conference on Everything Conceivable.”

This 67-year tradition was founded by Howard Higman, a sociology professor at University of Colorado Boulder, in 1948. This year’s conference will occur in Boulder in early April (the 6th through the 10th) and will involve over 100 speakers and more than 200 events over five days, with sessions on an incredible range of topics including social entrepreneurship, jazz, Internet dating, race relations, Bitcoin, space exploration, and storytelling. (See the full list of this year’s participants here and the full schedule here.)

The late Roger Ebert at a CWA event in 2009. Jim Palmer, the former director of CWA, called Ebert the “heart and soul’ of the conference. Ebert was a fixture at the conference for 40 years. (CU)

That diversity of topics makes this conference different from, say, the annual conference of the American Meat Institute or the Mortgage Bankers Association. But that doesn’t make it unique. The world is full of conferences, even multi-topic extravaganzas like this, featuring eclectic collections of notables, populating scores of sessions over the course of a week or more. The Atlantic itself is the organizer and host of one such event, its annual Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado.

However, several features of the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder do make it noteworthy (maybe even unique), especially from a community-building standpoint.

  • Every session throughout the week is completely free and open to the public.
  • Although the conference was started at the University of Colorado, still receives some administrative and financial support from the university, and holds most of its sessions at university venues, the planning and organizing—including the selection of speakers and panel topics—is handled by people in the community, who volunteer their time to make this amazing event happen every year. Many thousands of hours are contributed collectively by hundreds of community residents and undergraduate students who serve on committees, attend planning meetings, and otherwise give of themselves in the service of this public good.

And I use that term “public good” not just in the sense that the conference is good for the public but for its narrower, social-science meaning: the generous volunteers who make this week-long event happen receive no special, selective benefit for their contribution of time and effort (they don’t get guaranteed admission to packed events or anything else of the sort). This is an altruistic act of community building on their part.

  • The invited speakers receive no honorarium or other compensation, not even for travel expenses. They pay their own way. And for the five days they’re in Boulder for the conference, they’re housed by local residents who open up their homes to provide lodging. This is not merely a cost-control strategy, but an effort to promote community and foster the formation of friendships and lasting relationships.

I spoke recently with John Griffin, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado, who is the new Director of the CWA, about the interesting civic elements of the conference’s operation. (Full disclosure: He is a second-cousin and former student of mine.)

John Griffin, CWA Director (CU)

Commenting on the remarkable community involvement this conference induces, Griffin noted the variety of contributions: “The way you put on a conference that should cost many millions of dollars when you only have about $500,000 to work with is through over a thousand acts of generosity—people forgoing their usual speaker fees and paying for their own travel, local residents welcoming people into their homes for a week, students transporting speakers to and from the airport, and other things like that.”

Griffin went on to talk about another way in which the conference builds community. He told me that the ratio of returning speakers (people who’ve been there in past years) to new speakers is 60 percent returning to 40 percent new. “That helps build this sense of community at the conference because these returnees come back; they form relationships with people here over time.”

In order to build a week-long “community of learning,” the conference organizers go after a certain kind of speaker—people who are interested in a special kind of civic engagement. “It’s not our business model to run a $5 million conference and pay people $10,000 to come speak for an hour before they run off to their next gig,” Griffin told me. “We want to have people here who want to be here—people who want to spend time with us, get to know people in the community, and get to know each other.”

The CWA also is different in that it flips the usual conference model on its head. Instead of deciding what topics they want sessions on—say, “Violence on Campus”—and then going out to find people for panels on those topics, the organizers start by inviting participants and then ask those who will be coming for a list of subjects they’d be interested in talking about. On a Saturday in February, well over one hundred people from the community who serve on organizing committees gather together in a big auditorium on campus to put together sessions by aggregating the lists of speakers’ suggested topics. “Okay, here we have four different people who say they’d like to talk about Pope Francis—or about Putin, or whatever. And we build it that way,” Griffin said.

Participating speakers appear on anywhere from five to twelve panels over the course of the five days. Organizers try to make sure that each panel has a couple of speakers for whom the topic is within their realm of expertise and a couple more to whom the topic is outside their normal wheelhouse. That explains, for example, why one finds Valerie Plame Wilson (of CIA-spy fame) on a panel about the end of the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert era on Comedy Central. The idea is to generate spontaneity, fresh ideas, and lively interchange. Mixing up the panel rosters with unlikely pairings, Griffin told me, also helps the conference organizers ensure that various points of view are represented on topics.

The unusual speaker combinations “also have the additional advantage,” Griffin said, “of giving a lot of these panels a certain kind of intimacy. We’ve had people disclose their battles with breast cancer, or alcoholism. … There’s an intimacy that sometimes emerges when you mix subject-area experts with other smart people from outside that subject area, put them in a room together, and let them talk.” This subtle alchemy is often magical.

So, to see all this at work, I’m going to this year’s conference and will be attending—and reporting back here about—sessions on the maker movement, unsustainable cities, art and redevelopment, entrepreneurship, the future of higher-ed, and “what people agree on in Red and Blue America” (presumably, a short session).

If you’re within striking distance, I urge you to try to attend parts of it, too.  Where else are you going to get to hear and meet, say, Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican’s head astronomer(?!)—or hear the great tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts perform and talk about various aspects of music? If you’re unable to get to Boulder, there is video on demand available for many sessions here and audio recordings of all sessions will be available, usually by the next day. (Archive of past audio recordings here, organized by decade.)

I hope you’re able, one way or another, to take in parts of this interesting exercise in civic life.